Family Engagement and Students with Disabilities

Parents of students with disabilities are often engaged in ways that typical developing children never see. However, their engagement is often in the legal and academic rights realm rather than the academic achievement sector. These parents want to be involved in student learning. Since ensuring that their child’s academic needs are being met takes a lot of time, there is little time remaining for much else. For example, ensuring that IEPs and 504s are being followed consumes a lot of time, so much so that they do not get to participate in other aspects of the learning process. This is not to say that they are never involved or engaged with this part, but it is often much more critical that they follow the rest of the process. As a principal, you may wonder how to get these parents engaged with the learning and supporting their children inside the classroom, too.

Engagement Through Advocacy

One of the ways that parents are often engaged in their child’s education is through advocacy. Parents are strong advocates that their children should receive the best education possible. Through this advocacy, they may be engaging in the curriculum, but they need guidance too. When parents are concerned about compliance with access to the general education curriculum through IEP or 504 plan support, the team can help them to understand the curriculum and how the education plan relates to this curriculum. The principal is a valued member of this team and can make this connection more clearly for parents and staff.

Communication

No, we don’t mean to yell at you in internetese. We only want to emphasize that parental engagement relies heavily on communication. So often, students with disabilities are left in a grey area. Their instructors are only communicating when IEP meetings pop up or if there is a problem. Problem communication is common for all students. So often, the “average” students don’t receive much communication from schools. Only extraordinary students academically or behaviorally receive frequent communication. Remember, extraordinary isn’t necessary above average. It’s just anyone outside of the ordinary. Parents cannot engage with the classroom curriculum without communication. Talk to parents, email them, group chat, or send them singing telegrams. Whatever you need to do to communicate should be top priority. There are a few things you need to keep in mind, though.

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Group Chat

While group chats are a great way to involve parents in the educational activities in the classrooms and academic environments, be sure that your teachers know that privacy is essential for your students and parents. Only share general news and needs in the classroom. 

Involvement VS. Engagement

These things sound the same, and we have included blogs explaining the difference between each. However, we want to reiterate that they are not the same. Involvement is generally the first step of engagement. Many parents are involved, but few can be as engaged. We also want to echo the sentiment from before that involvement is valued interaction with the school, and for parents who are involved but not engaged, we appreciate you too! However, parents who wish to be engaged will need guidance for engaging with their child’s classroom and curriculum. For more  information on involvement and engagement, refer to our other blog. 

Positivity Sandwich

When classroom communication must include something negative, teachers should always continue to be positive as well. Parents of students with disabilities know all the negatives. IEP meetings become two hours of what the child can’t do and how they aren’t on grade level. Likewise, 504 meetings become two hours of how their disability that isn’t necessarily a cognitive one impacts their learning or classroom. To combat this issue, positivity is often used. One technique you might encourage your teachers to employ is a positivity sandwich. This technique requires teachers to say a positive thing about the student before delivering negative news or behaviors. Likewise, they follow with a positive observation. These observations may not be related, but they can be. For example, let’s say that a student has difficulty communicating and is usually very quiet. One day, the student becomes agitated and pushes a student they perceive to be bothering them. Rather than starting with Sally pushed another student, you might say that Sally asserted herself in class today. You are happy that she was trying to find her voice. However, by pushing the student, she is now in trouble for fighting. She has come a long way from taking insults and annoying behavior, and you are looking forward to working with her on finding more appropriate ways to assert her needs to other students. You are not telling the parent simply that Sally is in trouble. You are telling them that there are positive things about Sally and that she is growing as a student but needs help becoming the best student she can be. Parents are more likely to engage with the lessons in class if they do not feel that their child is being picked on or targeted. 

Final Thoughts

Getting parents of students with disabilities to engage in the classroom is easier than getting typically developing children’s parents to engage, many times. However, care must be taken to ensure that students are respected and parents are carefully instructed in how they can best support their children. Parents want what is best for their children, whether they have a disability or not. On the other hand, parents of children hear negatives about their children more than they hear positives. Therefore, you must keep the positives at the forefront. Be sure to offer parents positive ways to help their children and positive comments about their children. Parents know that their children struggle and often struggle to help them in return. Don’t contact them for only negative occurrences. Call them when the child has a great day, or take a picture and send an email. Parents of students with disabilities can be fantastic allies for your classroom.